Winter wonderland in Tohoku

See the picture-perfect setting of Ginzan Onsen covered in white.

JAPAN - As I strode down the slippery slope covered with snow, my heart beat faster and perspiration trickled down my forehead even in the thick of winter.

It was not so much the trepidation of falling and looking silly that got my pulse racing but the prospect of seeing the picture-perfect setting of Ginzan Onsen covered in white.

Almost five years ago, when I was there on my first work trip, it was the peak of a sweltering summer. I had been told how equally beautiful the scenery looked during winter.

Ever since then, I had been secretly wishing to be at that same spot in thermal wear.

The scene before me looked even better than the postcard that I remembered gaping at.

Ginzan Onsen is located in Yamagata Prefecture in Tohoku region, which lies north-east of Tokyo on the main Honshu Island.

The hot spring (onsen) town's name - Ginzan or "silver mountain" - refers to the silver mine discovered there many centuries ago. The mountain forms the backdrop of any touristy photo of the place.

Access to the mine was closed due to the heavy snow. So, I counted myself lucky as being able to have been up to the mountain and into the now-disused mine during my visit in the summer of 2009.

The area, which is dotted with three- and four-storey wooden buildings on both sides of the Ginzan River, offers several hot spring baths at a fee.

The bashful can make a prior reservation for a private hot spring. Winter not only paints postcard-worthy scenery, but snow also lets cities organise snowrelated festivals.

Flame for hope

In the Aizu Wakamatsu city of Fukushima Prefecture, where we spent our second night in Tohoku, we were in time for the city's annual candle festival that is held in February.

The event was in the environs of the Tsuruga Castle, which is a concrete replica of the traditional castle that once stood as the military and administrative centre of the Aizu region.

Celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, the festival saw as many as 7,000 candles in different shapes and sizes lit up. The dancing amber flames amid the white powdery snow were quite spectacular.

I was told that candles played an important role in the region for over 500 years. Traditionally, the candles were painted with plant or flower motifs because fresh flora are difficult to find in winter. So these candles bring some semblance of spring (and hope for the future) to residents.

But with electricity, people no longer see the need to use candles. So the candle festival was introduced to remind people of their significance.

There were candles that lined up the path leading to the castle compounds, and others that were planted to form a shape of a heart that spells out love for the city.

And then there were candles that were wrapped inside a paper carrying a message of hope. The English translation says "Future from Fukushima" while the actual Japanese phrase "Fukushima kara hajimeyou" roughly translates into "Let's start from Fukushima".

Igloos and lanterns

The next day, we went to Ouchijuku, which connected Aizu with Nikko during the Edo Period (between 1603 and 1867).

The unpaved main street of about 500m is lined by thatched-roof buildings, which were not quite obvious as they were covered by thick powdery snow when we were there.

The buildings now house various shops, restaurants and even minshuku (small traditional Japanese inn).

The snow was solid enough for residents to build little igloos outside their shops and they were more than happy for visitors to crawl inside, and it was amazingly warm.

The roads were also lined up with "snow lanterns" that would be lit up in the evening.

We saw more snow lanterns later at the Uesugi Snow Lantern Festival in Yonezawa city in Yamagata Prefecture. It was held in the expansive compounds near the Uesugi Shrine.

The carnival-like atmosphere there was complete with stalls hawking hot food (perfect for winter), toys and trinkets as well as cotton candies in all shapes and sizes.

What I found fascinating too was the juxtaposition of the modern with the traditional, as a choir group performed pop songs outdoors while a traditional "Noh" theatre performance was taking place in one of the main buildings.

Snow festival

On the penultimate day of our tour, we visited the Iwate Snow Festival at Koiwai Farm in Iwate Prefecture.

Considered as one of Tohoku's top snow festivals, the Iwate Snow Festival boasts many snow sculptures, a snow "maze", as well as a large snow slide where you can have fun sledding down.

There is also a horse sleigh and a snow "train". It is like one big winter wonderland of an amusement park.

There was a lot of food to try too, from the tentage stalls to little igloos called kamakura, where visitors could tuck into a table barbecue meal.

The fact that these igloos wouldn't melt despite an open flame inside them was a testament to the cold.

Even though it was sub-zero temperature, we couldn't help but queue for the "softo" ice cream.

After all, Koiwai Farm is reputed for its fresh farm produce including milk and other dairy products. Others made a beeline for hot soup and amazake (a sweet drink made from fermented rice).

The writer's trip was organised by the Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organisation

GUIDELINES

- You can take the bullet train from Tokyo Station to the different cities in Tohoku. Get a JR East pass before you arrive in Japan for huge savings on the train fares.

- Sendai (the capital city of Tohoku) is famous for gyutan (beef tongue). You can have it cured, smoked or fried.

- In Iwate Prefecture, an interesting meal is the wanko soba, in which the diner will be served nine bowls of soba. If you think that's too much, head to the Hanamaki Wanko Soba All Japan Competition, where even elementary school children have no problem swallowing over 50 bowls in under three minutes.

- Visitors to Tohoku can enjoy free Wi-Fi service for 14 days. Get your Wi-Fi pass from one of the distribution centres and activate. The free Internet access is available at more than 38,000 hot spots in the Eastern Japan area, including more than 10,000 locations in the seven prefectures of Tohoku.

- Tohoku tourism website: en.tohokukanko.jp/

- Free Wi-Fi service: http://flets.com/freewifi/index.html

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